When the proposed HS2 rail link carves its filthy way through the pristine Cotswolds in 2025, the journey time between London and Birmingham will be cut to just over an hour. The average capital commute is currently 45 minutes – so before Brum becomes an Oyster suburb (Zone 20?), perhaps you should take the scenic route through the charming Chilterns and enjoy the distinctive attractions of this much-maligned but full-of-potential destination.
While there’s no point pretending it’s the Barcelona of Britain, our second city doesn’t deserve its second-rate reputation. Most of the opprobrium Brum gets is probably from people who have never been there; its status seems to come from constantly being compared with its cooler neighbours up the road, and the capital to which it will always be an understudy. But in its favour it has a city centre that’s navigable on foot, exciting restaurants, cultural events without the London hype and a landscape endlessly fascinating to fans of the modernist form.
Shopping & Style
Selfridges, Armani, Apple, All Saints… Birmingham really is great for shopping. But so is London: there are better ways to spend your money in Birmingham. The revamped and bombastic Bullring shopping centre is worth a look for an example of how imaginative design can keep consumers away from out-of-town malls, but a short walk to the east, in Digbeth, is the Custard Factory (Gibb Street, B9 4AA), former wellspring of Bird’s and now home to numerous independent galleries, shops, studios, bars and cafés.
Do Londoners need to travel to Birmingham to eat curry when we have the delights of Whitechapel, Southall, Tooting and Wembley? Yes. In the 1960s, restaurants in the famous ‘Balti Triangle’ served Anglicised Subcontinental dishes in little metal bowls, a style of cooking that turned ‘Indian’ into our national cuisine. And it isn’t just for curry completists. Our own Brick Lane has become a chilli-scented theme park for out-of-towners and the unimaginative, but many of the 50 or so restaurants in Brum’s Sparkbrook area still cook Punjabi food to a high standard for Asian locals as well as incomers. One of the oldest is Imran’s (262-266 Ladypool Road, B12 8JU; 0121 449 1370). Open since 1981, its homely Punjabi dishes use judicious fresh spicing to shout at diners rather than sneak up on them.
The chains and strip clubs of Broad Street are best avoided, but it’s there you’ll find Pushkar (245 Broad Street, B1 2HQ; 0121 643 7978), a modern Indian with a great cocktail bar. The food takes influences from all over the country, but curries are fragrant and stylishly presented. Try the slow-cooked lamb in pickling spices.
One of the finest pubs in the city centre is friendly freehouse The Wellington (37 Bennetts Hill, B2 5SN; 0121 200 3115). There are 16 real ales on offer and if you bring your own food, cutlery and plates will be provided. The opulent Old Joint Stock Theatre (4 Temple Row West, B2 5NY; 0121 200 1892) is a vast, gilded conversion of a Victorian bank.
The best coffee in the city is at Urban Coffee Company (30 Church Street, B3 2NP; 0121 236 0207), with enthusiastic baristas and single-estate filter brews.
Critics are quick to dismiss Birmingham as an architecturally unrewarding place to visit. It’s true that it has been built up, replanned and torn down more than almost any other place of comparable size in the country, but its compact centre, 2,000 listed buildings and the sheer ceaselessness of its regeneration make it an exciting place to walk. It’s like an urban planning experiment that got out of hand. Turn a corner and another dramatic vista opens up; scale and perspectives flip with every step. Brutalist concrete clamours for attention beside Blairite ‘regeneration’ developments: anything with an industrial legacy is fair game for redesignation. Skyscrapers spring up where they shouldn’t – and amid it all, Victorian remainders stand stoic.
The Still Walking festival, which runs March 15-April 1, is an example of the sort of independent happening that Birmingham does well. It’s organised by local artist and historian Ben Waddington, and features an esoteric set of guided walks around the city led by ‘historians, architects, artists, psychogeographers, dancers, storytellers and ramblers’, all keen to share their experiences of moving around Birmingham. ‘It came about after my Invisible Cinema tour for the Flatpack Festival [see Around Town below],’ says Waddington. ‘I began to think of the many ways and reasons people walk.’ Some of the highlights include Birmingham Noir, exploring ‘architectural grotesques and oddities in the business district’; Radial Truths, a cycling tour through the history of Birmingham cycle manufacture; and Brumicana, investigating the city’s urban myths.
Another imminent inducement to Londoners to take the train north-west is the magnificently eclectic Flatpack Festival, March 14-18, now in its sixth year. Venues around the city screen an inspired selection of films – short, long, musical, animated – with little in the way of an overarching theme save creativity. An example of the no-limits approach to the programming is Panopticon (March 17), a night of psychedelic film and music from US bands Pontiak and White Hills.
Later this spring (March 29-April 8), Birmingham’s international festival of live art, Fierce, presents performances, parties and events in galleries and unusual spaces around the city. Australian installation artist Bennett Miller’s ‘Dachshund UN’ – a replica of a United Nations debating chamber, staffed by sausage dogs – arrives on March 31. The diplomatic canines will be outside the Ikon Gallery (1 Oozells Square, B1 2HS; 0121 248 0708) at 1pm.
Ikon is a space with a reputation for hosting cutting-edge exhibitions – and tying into the perambulation theme is the current show by Hamish Fulton (until April 29), a ‘walking artist’ whose large-scale representations of epic treks give the experience of being on foot a grand context. More traditional artistic pleasures are housed in the imposing Birmingham Art Gallery & Museum (Chamberlain Square, B3 3DH; 0121 303 2834), a Victorian edifice with permanent exhibits of historical artefacts, paintings old and modern, and the world’s largest public collection of pre-Raphaelite art.
On the water
An often repeated factlet is that Brum has more miles of canal than Venice: the area around Gas Street Basin has been the site of intense redevelopment in recent years, but a narrowboat trip is a great way to see the city from a different angle and learn about the industrial expansion that took the city from market town to metropolis. Away 2 Canal runs one-hour excursions leaving from Brindleyplace in the Westside district.
Chiltern Railways run from Marylebone to Birmingham Moor Street in 1 hour 45 minutes. Returns from £25. The new Mainline service cuts the journey to 1 hour 30 minutes; its trains have some of the most comfortable carriages in Britain.
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic place to bed down in Brum is the Rotunda (150 New Street, B2 4PA; 0121 285 1290), right next to the Bullring. The cylindrical, Grade-II-listed ’60s tower’s top two floors are now home to the Staying Cool serviced apartments. They come with ’60s-inspired decor and extras like Apple Macs and espresso machines. Leave the curtains open and wake up to the panoramic views from the floor-to-ceiling windows. From £109 per night.